Burn Notice, Kitchen Confidential, and House.
I hardly ever watch TV on TV anymore. Even with a digital video recorder, sitting down in front of the TV to watch something seems so inflexible and archaic. If it’s not available online—either on Hulu or some other site—keeping up with it is too much bother. (I stopped watching Gossip Girl when it was no longer available on the Internet, and the ratings would suggest that I wasn’t the only one. Poor move, CW.) Besides, the Internet provides so much more variety, plus instant gratification. Here are another few shows I never would have seen were it not for the glories of the World Wide Web.
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Burn Notice, 2007–
When I was a kid, I became completely enamored of The Day of the Jackal (both Frederick Forsyth’s novel and the 1973 film based on it) and decided I wanted to be a professional assassin—not really, of course, but the Jackal fascinated me. Day concerns itself with the intricacies of his job, the way he plans for every particular yet quickly adapts if circumstances demand it. He is methodical and resourceful, with the catlike agility of a martial arts expert and the snakelike tongue of a con man, and I knew that if I were a criminal, I would want to be just like him.
Burn Notice is about a spy, not an assassin, but it, too, feeds my amoral love of the mechanics of reconnaissance, forgery, blackmail, precision weaponry, and other dark arts. Creator Matt Nix clearly shares that love because he packs his show with narration about how, exactly, protagonist Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) does what he does. Westen usually doesn’t have much to work with—he’s been blacklisted and is keeping himself afloat with odd jobs of varying levels of legality while he tries to discover why—so his tricks often rely on deception or skillful manipulation of cheap household items, which makes them all the more fun.
I can’t quite warm to Westen himself (Maybe he’s too unflappable: Donovan is technically an attractive guy, but in this role, he seems to lack pheromones), but his sidekicks Sam (the inimitable Bruce Campbell) and Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) have enough personality to compensate. And though it’s no Day of the Jackal, Burn Notice does provide excellent escapism, not to mention more fodder for my fantasy of a parallel Mary Beth with a Swiss bank account, a dozen false identities, and the eye of a sharpshooter.
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Kitchen Confidential, 2005.
Sex and the City has many annoying attributes, but one of my least favorite is Carrie’s framing narration, in which each episode’s theme is laboriously spelled out, tying the subplots together with a too-cute bow. Kitchen Confidential, another Darren Star production (though obviously a less successful one), uses the same devise, but at least its lead character, Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper), isn’t prone to strings of nauseating puns, so thank the TV gods for that, I guess.
But pat narration aside, Kitchen Confidential had promise, and it’s a shame it never had a chance to find an audience, especially considering the strength of the cast. In addition to the charismatic Cooper, the ensemble includes Nicholas Brendon (Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks), John Cho (Harold from the Harold and Kumar movies), and character actor extraordinaire Frank Langella (who, poor thing, will always be the duplicitous villain in Dave for me).
Stronger even than the cast, though, is the setting. Most workplace sitcoms have only a vague sense of place, but Kitchen Confidential’s pedigree (it’s loosely based on hotshot chef Anthony Bourdain’s memoir) makes the behind-the-scenes restaurant locale vivid and interesting. The restaurant business is notoriously volatile and competitive, fraught with unique comedic and dramatic possibilities, so when Fox pulled Kitchen off the air after only four episodes, it squandered the opportunity to cultivate something truly distinctive.
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I caught a couple episodes of House when it debuted and didn’t care for it. I adore Hugh Laurie, but his titular character looked like a one-note misanthrope, and the medical mysteries seemed haphazard, just a random series of failed diagnoses until the hour ran out with a correct one. But a few months ago, during the drought of the writers’ strike, I caught a few episodes online and realized how misguided I had been in my first assessment.
Dr. Gregory House is, of course, a misanthrope, but Laurie and the show’s writers have created a much more complex, nuanced character that I once believed. His tortured, codependent friendship with fellow doctor James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) is especially fascinating: a look at how shared history, compatible faults, and inertia can hold together a not-always-healthy relationship. Also, House’s sense of humor, which I had taken for mere nastiness, is more interesting that. The barbs are funny, for one thing (often offensively so—some shock value there), but they’re also telling, inviting us to consider who he’s holding at arm’s length, and how, and why, and whether he fully understands the answers to those questions.
I do think that some of the diagnostic mysteries live down to my initial assessment (though in the past few years, I’ve come to realize that modern medicine often is just a series of blunders until something works), but at its best, the drama is stimulating and potent. This year’s two-part season finale, in particular, was such a twisty, devastating tour de force that if the next season of House is unavailable online, I just might deign to catch it on TV.